Lion Tamers

A June 12 fundraising concert at Westport Playhouse will collect 13 alumni of University City High School who have gone on to make their marks on the local and national music scenes. The event, billed as "Lions of Jazz," will feature an astounding array of talent for any performance, let alone a gathering of former students from one high-school music program: trumpeters Jeremy Davenport and Wayne du Maine, saxophonists Marty Ehrlich and Todd Williams, pianists Peter Martin and Mike Wilner, bassists Neal Caine and Chris Thomas, drummers David Berger, Ronnie Burrage and Henry Claude, vocalist Melissa Fathman and the event's artistic director, Vincent Danner.

As the name implies, the "Lions of Jazz" lineup focuses on U. City High alums who have made their names in that genre. Ehrlich, known for his mastery of an array of saxes and clarinets, as well as flute, has performed on nearly 100 recordings and works in at least a half-dozen bands. Burrage has toured the world backing musicians such as Sonny Fortune and Mark Whitfield, and leads his own band. Davenport, living in New Orleans, has released two recordings as a leader. Martin, Thomas and Caine -- also based in New Orleans -- have gone on to work with the likes of Joshua Redman, Betty Carter, Wynton Marsalis, Nicholas Payton and Terence Blanchard. Williams was a member of Marsalis' group for several years, and Wilner is a fixture at New York jazz clubs.

But some of the featured performers have made their marks in other fields. Berger worked with the Flying Neutrinos from 1992-97, playing music that blended traditional jazz with a rock sensibility. Claude is a founding member of St. Louis' Nuclear Percussion Ensemble, a group that blurs the boundary between jazz and new music. Du Maine has been a featured soloist with several symphonies and works frequently on Broadway. Fathman has sung in operas such as Don Giovanni and Carmen, and Danner is resident conductor of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra.

"We wanted to emphasize the high quality of jazz musicians who have roots at University City High School," says Mary Schuman, chairwoman of the benefit. "The jazz musicians probably have a higher profile, and there have been so many good ones over the years. But we also wanted to show that the musical talent that has come through the school has extended into other musical fields."

The graduation dates for the 13 returning musicians fall mainly in the 1980s, especially 1983-88. That's no surprise, considering that during those years the University High School music program -- especially the jazz band -- had a national reputation. "In 1983, our jazz band was one of only 10 in the United States invited to perform at the Montreux International Jazz Festival in Switzerland," recalls John Brophy, who ran the music program from 1976-1987. "On that trip, we also performed at the Paris Jazz Festival, and later we had the chance to play at the annual International Jazz Educators convention. We had a lot of very talented kids come through the program at that time."

The jazz program was so good during that period that the school had two jazz bands. Chris Thomas, now recognized as one of the finest young bassists in jazz, played in the second-string band. "At its high point we had more than 250 kids in the school participating in the music program," says Brophy. "So although it may seem funny that back then Chris wasn't able to beat out the bass player in our top jazz band -- someone who's probably a doctor or a lawyer now rather than a professional musician -- it does tell you something about the quality of musicianship."

The program had already earned a reputation for its jazz program in the 1970s, says Marty Ehrlich, who graduated in 1973, then moved on to the New England Conservatory of Music and a career in jazz. And he believes the makeup of the community had much to do with the strength of the jazz program.

"University City was one of the first integrated suburbs in St. Louis," Ehrlich says, "and I remember it as a tremendous place to grow up. There was a very strong arts tradition in U. City, and it seemed like a vital place. I remember meeting a lot of the musicians who were part of the BAG (Black Artists Group) in the Loop when I was really getting into jazz."

Schuman believes that University City's support of the arts is still alive, and the "Lions" event provides an ideal vehicle to accomplish two goals -- raise funds to enhance University City school programs, and inspire the community and current students by reconnecting with the musical achievements of these alumni.

"The proceeds from the event will go to the University City Public Schools Education Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to enriching educational programs in our schools," she explains. "We distribute grants for worthwhile programs that fall outside the school district's budget, and with this concert we're hoping to kick off an endowment fund which will help us increase the number of grants we can award each year. And besides raising funds, the concert is equally important in inspiring our current students -- showing them the great musical tradition and artistic achievements of students who attended University City schools before them."

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